Dying Light by D. Scott Meek
By SMW Staff
Leading her, they occupied seats in the front row of the dias, right of the center and the podium. The teleprompters were blank and clear, but the lights were blinking green. The cameras were panning the crowd, and one just to his right was swinging around to him. Settling back in his chair, he struggled to look vice-presidential, suppressing a laugh that came out of nowhere. Here it was finally: the west steps of the Capitol, the day he’d been working hard for all these years, the swearing in of both parties almost complete. In less than 30 minutes, they had been assured, he’d be in the limo headed for the White House. The parade had been cancelled.
Alex shifted in his chair, and Jennifer whispered in his ear. He was nervous, and he’d as much as said it in the hallway coming up to the platform. There were more people stretched out in front of them than either of them could ever count, a virtual sea of people, despite the sub-zero temperatures, the ice and the wind. They stretched out and covered the National Mall as if each blade of grass there had been transformed into a human being. The crowd moved like a single living organism, waves of people shifting, and the noise rumbling up from below was the wave crashing against the shores of the Capitol steps.
Pushing back, Willem stretched out on the bed, pulling his legs and feet up underneath him, already feeling the exhaustion of the morning weighing on him despite the confidence that Emily had provided. Fingers of weariness crept up his spine, massaging, soothing, coaxing him to lie back. The visions in his head played on, clearer now as he closed his eyes and gave in to the moment yet again.
The announcements made, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Honorable Stephen D. Culbreth, stood solemnly before Alex Tribault, Jennifer just behind. Each of them had raised their hands, and the Chief Justice had begun to read. “I do solemnly swear” – try as he might, Willem could barely watch the Oath of Office; his mind and eyes were playing across the crowd, enjoying the spectacle and their enjoyment of it – “that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States,” – an endless number of camera flashes dotted the sea of bodies, everyone trying to capture this historic moment and bottle it – “and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
The two men shook hands as the stage vibrated to thunderous applause. At once the band, situated, off-stage to the left, took up “Hail to the Chief”, and Willem stood, crossed the short space between them and congratulated his friend, the President of the United States. And firm hand shake and a warm hug was all that passed between them. Words, he was sure, would be lost in the competing roars of the crowd and the band. Instead, they turned and looked out again over the crowd, hands up, waiving, taking in the amazing scene before them and the majesty of the most important capitol city on Earth. People stretched as far as the eye could see, well beyond the Capitol Reflecting Pool and into the spaces between the Smithsonian buildings. It seemed they stretched endlessly, even past the Washington Monument, but he was sure no one that far back could possibly see or hear anything, sure that it had to be an optical illusion as the heads of spectators blended in with broken patches of ice amongst the browned grass.
He rolled over onto his back, another deep sigh expanding his chest. The bed had never felt so comfortable, the sheets so soft. Sleep tugged at him, clamoring for his compliance as the dream continued.
The music died away as suddenly as it had come up, and the first crack of the Presidential Salute Battery shattered the sudden quiet, the beginning of the Old Guard’s 21-gun salute. With each successive firing of the howitzer, Willem winced – that sound would forever haunt him, and as memories flooded his head, brought on by the distant booms, he looked down the Mall toward the Vietnam Memorial hidden nearly a mile away behind leafless trees. It would days before he could get down there, he thought, but he would visit them soon.
The 21st shot echoed across the campus, fading away into the distance, and the whole of the world grew quiet. He blinked, startled by the sudden calm, and waited momentarily, his arm still around the presidental shoulders as the words of the inaugural address scrolled up on the tele-prompters. Looking over at his life-long friend, he whispered the simple words that came to mind: “We did it.” A moment later a 7.62 sniper round struck Alex Tribault in the left cheek.
Atop the Capitol building, a powerful gust of wind ripped the flag from its perch and sent it fluttering down into the screaming throng.
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